The Arrests at Chicken Plants in Mississippi

August 19, 2019 Updated: August 19, 2019


In the first week of August, my state was home to the largest immigration sting of its kind in more than a decade.

According to U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, 650 Homeland Security agents executed search warrants at seven chicken processing plants across Mississippi, resulting in the detention of approximately 680 undocumented workers, nearly all of them from Latin America.

About 30 were given a court date and immediately released, due to “humanitarian concerns.” Another 270 or so were released later that same day for the same reason (although many were equipped with ankle monitors). The rest were sent to one of three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in Louisiana for longer-term detainment.

Many of the workers had children, and it was the first week of the school year. The arrests also came on the heels of the shootings that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas. Social media was flooded with heartbreaking pictures and video of frightened young children crying for their parents. It was a tough situation. Mississippi isn’t a border state, and hasn’t faced the same issues of separation of children and parents that Texas and Arizona have had. It’s also a devout and charitable state.

Some Mississippi leaders condemned the arrests and pointed out that it was a federal action, not a state or local one. My own law school began mobilizing volunteer lawyers to assist those workers who were arrested, and several charities sprang into action to support the families.

The problem is that there’s a serious crime that the authorities are trying to uncover and prosecute. It’s not just about what the workers did.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” program, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan explained that the police actions weren’t “raids,” but “targeted law enforcement operations.” He said that this was “a joint criminal investigation with ICE and the Department of Justice targeting worksite enforcement, meaning companies that knowingly and willfully hire illegal aliens so that, in most cases, they can pay them reduced wages, exploit them further for their bottom line.”

That’s a very important point. The workers were arrested, but the companies were the targets. One of those companies has been allegedly exploiting workers, and the Department of Justice’s investigation is continuing. In fact, and as strange as this may sound, the search warrant application filed by ICE prior to the operation makes clear that the workers were detained not because of crimes they committed, but because they were evidence of the companies’ wrongdoing.

The Mississippi Clarion Ledger reports that, according to that application, these plants have, for many years, employed undocumented workers.

Between 2002 and 2019, about 222 undocumented workers produced ID cards indicating that they worked for one of the plants (Peco Foods) when they were confronted by federal officials. During that same period, another 114 undocumented workers told authorities that they worked at another of the plants (Koch Foods, unrelated to Koch Industries or the well-known Koch brothers). A confidential informant who worked for a third plant (PH Food) told authorities that the vast majority of immigrants employed at the plant were undocumented and had fake identification.

“The payroll companies, as well as PH Food Inc. and A&B Inc., do not verify the authenticity of their documents,” the confidential informant told investigators, according to the Associated Press. (Mississippi state law, by the way, provides that failure to use the federal E-Verify system is a felony.)

As reported by the Associated Press, according to the unsealed warrant applications, six of the seven processing plants “willfully and unlawfully” employed people who weren’t authorized to work in the United States. Electronic ankle bracelet data shows that people who had previously been arrested for immigration violations and were prohibited from working in the United States were nevertheless working at all seven plants. Supervisors allegedly turned a blind eye to evidence of fraudulent Social Security numbers.

Employers who knowingly hire people with fake identification do so because they can take advantage of them. Working conditions in chicken processing plants are difficult, in even the best-run companies. Undocumented workers are unlikely to complain about dangerous conditions, unsanitary work environments, or even sub-standard pay, which lets the plant operate with fewer expenses, giving it a competitive advantage in the market.

Many people have complained on social media and elsewhere that the employees were arrested but the employers (who appear to have recruited some workers) will go free. Conviction of employers for hiring undocumented workers is difficult. The problem is that prosecutors have to prove that the employers knowingly broke the law. Employers can claim that they were fooled by fraudulent documents presented by the workers. This difficulty, however, may be changing. According to the Associated Press, nationwide, between October 2018 and May 2019, eight new prosecutions were filed against corporations for employment violations; there were also four new convictions.

In Mississippi, U.S. Attorney Hurst directed reporters for the Clarion Ledger to “the history of this office and our prosecutions in the past of business owners who hire illegal workers.” He noted that as an assistant U.S. attorney, he personally prosecuted numerous such cases.

Moreover, he made clear at a press conference that he’s still after the employers: “For those who take advantage of illegal aliens, to those who use illegal aliens for competitive advantage or to make a quick buck, we have something to say to you. If we find that you have violated federal criminal law, we’re coming after you.”

Because this is an ongoing investigation, he didn’t give further details on the operation, but the owners can’t be sleeping easy.

Under federal law, employers can face up to six months in custody and/or a $3,000 fine for each undocumented worker they employ. Companies also face administrative fines based on the tax documents that they have to file for their employees. Some also will owe taxes and back pay to workers. This all comes on top of some large financial costs the companies are already experiencing because of work interruptions they are currently facing.

Of course, none of that makes one feel better about seeing crying children being separated from their parents. I serve on the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. At our last public hearing, a young woman spoke about the fear that she experienced as a child when her father was arrested. We have started discussions about how to help children in that situation, but it’s a tough issue that’s best addressed outside of the heat of current emotions.

In this Mississippi operation, single parents were released within hours after arrest. The same was true if two parents in the same family were arrested. About 30 were released right at the workplace. Schools were notified, school bus drivers knew, detainees were permitted to call and make arrangements, neighbors stepped up, and it seems that all of the children were properly cared for. Now churches, civic groups, and others are stepping up to help. Aside from ignoring federal law, it’s hard to know what else might have been done.

Driving on the Interstate in northern Mississippi two days after the arrests, I saw what I thought was a Greyhound bus. When I passed it, I saw that it was painted with the words “Homeland Security.” It had clearly been in the state for the arrests. It would, undoubtedly, be used in similar operations in the future.

I’m glad that allegedly abusive employers are facing scrutiny. I hope workers (especially parents) recognize the importance of complying with laws and regulations, and the risks associated with violating them.

Mainly, though, I wish children didn’t suffer when adults break the rules.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.